A bit quiet over the summer, but a recent podcast I did with Stephen Schettini (AKA The Naked Monk) has come out. We talk about the book, and various things. One of the most interesting is the idea of what would have happened to the traditional forms of religion in Western Europe and the US if Buddhism hadn’t had such a draw on many dissatisfied but enthusiastic people over the last 4 decades or so: You can hear the podcast at http://www.thenakedmonk.com/2013/07/26/2-david-webster/.
On the same day, a review of Dispirited came out on the LSE Books website. The review is HERE. Although the reviewer doesn’t agree with everything, she offers a really engaged and critical review that I thought was rather good. She has me pegged as a neo-Kantian, which I am not totally happy about (though arch Buddhist-Kantian Justin Whitaker will be pleased). However, she can only have got that impression from the book – so it’s probably my fault.
Furthermore, the reviewer is correct to point out that it’s an unfinished account: the neither-religious-nor-spiritual response is still in need
of better, more philosophically developed, versions which I only hint at in the book…
Below is a version of the paper I gave at CESNUR13. Clearly I will have said more in person: digressed, embellished and clarified, no doubt. But though it may be of some interest…
Isn’t the University emblematic of free speech? It is where we say what can’t be uttered in commercial contexts, or in faith contexts where certain claims are sacrosanct. Shouldn’t the University be where we blaspheme?
For this paper, you’ll have to forgive me the self-indulgence of speaking about my experience and myself. It’s a subjective-experience-based paper, and that seems to require a faintly autobiographical introduction. I outlined the paper to colleague who said: “So it’s all about you then? Why don’t you go and do some proper scholarly work instead?” Charming. But actually I want to begin with some
personal accounts that I think lead to general considerations that impact on the way religions are studied, evaluated and discussed in scholarly contexts. We’ll see…
Back in September 2010, back when we were all young and fabulous, I found myself in Turin, at something called ‘CESNUR’. Given that my research interests are mostly to do with the philosophical implications of ideas in early Pali Buddhist texts, a number of people (sometimes including myself) wondered what I was doing there. Some of them asked me.
In response I tried to vocalise an interest I had in New-Age / Mind-Body-Spirit thought, and why I had such strong opinions about it. As often happens, being forced to talk about this helped me crystallise my thoughts, and in conversation I began to formulate the reasons that underpinned my response.
I went home, got busy, and slowly let the ideas simmer. Then I sent off a proposal and in Summer 2011 sat in cafés in Cheltenham and wrote a short manuscript. The resulting book: Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish & Unhappy was published in June 2012.
This was a personal statement of (dis)belief that also engaged with, and represented, my experience as a student of religious traditions, particularly new-age ones. It was provocative and personal, but I felt it also made a set of (mostly) reasonable arguments. What I had, from some quarters, was an extreme reaction. I University lecturers asked questions in raised voices, others tut-ed non-stop as I gave papers on the book, some wrote to me insisting that I should not be allowed near young minds. I felt myself pushed into an uncomfortable academic space that this paper explores.
So what was it that was so annoying to people? Well, the book isn’t descriptive. I don’t quantify, offer data, or draw summaries based on qualitative surveys. My evaluation isn’t limited to what I think best sums up the practices or beliefs or certain groups. I go a stage beyond this and offer an explicit ethical evaluation. I argue that certain ways of holding ‘spiritual’ beliefs is a bad thing. That there are a particular class of attitudes and stances, most commonly those associated with the slogan ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR) that are toxic and dangerous. You can perhaps begin to se why some didn’t like it. I didn’t expect those it criticised to much like it – I expecting the kicking I got on SBNR blogs, and was happy to shrug it off. However, a lot of academics seemed uncomfortable with the book. While talking about problems with the SBNR, I also develop a strand of outspoken atheism in the book, where I commend the abandonment of all spiritual and religious belief in favour of a reckoning with an apparently bleak nihilism. The reception I received (not entirely positive) from Religious Studies circles led me to ponder the mechanics of claims about appropriate speech in these settings.
Scholars of religious traditions are expected, on one hand, to maintain a stately indifference to the object of study. To describe, note, remark and critically assess: an engaged and engaging task, but one where they leave their own personal commitments at the door. Most of the papers we’ve been hearing here have been evaluative, critical and reflective -rather than merely descriptive- but the critique is mostly of the methods applied, and whether they indicate x or y, and how we might read and make sense of data gathered. We, as a group of scholars (is there a collective noun for RS scholars? We certainly talk of a confusion of philosophers, and I’ve heard reference to a malice of historians.. anyway..) are reluctant to offer certain kinds of judgement- at least in part. I’ll return to this with reference to the area of Theology shortly.
On the other hand, scholars of religion are eminently qualified to say what they assess to be helpful or harmful in varied traditions – to speak from a standpoint of both knowledge and from deep personal commitment to a position. Theologians have, indeed, often done so. One might go further and argue that the critical evaluation that makes the study of religion more than just a mere process of cataloguing and describing requires some form of judgment as to the social, political and ethical impacts of those phenomena studied. Achieving this, while not falling prey to accusations of being partial, an advocate instead of a scholar, can push one into a challenging space. One might even argue that either one is an advocate OR a scholar. That one cannot be both seems to help us perpetuate some pseudo-science myth of actual objectivity. But we are not scientists. Some may be so more than other, but many of us are philosophers, and interested in ethics. This is not a study of an entirely objective nature. But it does not mean well-informed judgements are not possible: we really are all both – I have views, judgements, these come from the academic and the personal – but to say the former is objective and the latter subjective is rather naive.
Let me put this another way – do we find scholars in our area advocating belief or disbelief in specific traditions, or at least offering up their benefits or disbenefits? This depends on the context of course. In my classroom, I mostly resist inflicting my take on my students: although where there are positive aspects, especially where they might have missed them, I may mention them. They may have a variety of negative misconceptions about the impact of various faiths, often derived from the media, that need addressing. I may talk about social justice movements in South American Christianity, or Islam’s intellectual and scientific influence via Cordoba, or Buddhist fundamentalists – correctives to populist simplifications. But clearly I won’t have classes on “why Religion X is wrong” for example – although in a controversial area like Cults & Sects, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some focus on claims of mis-deeds – but NRM studies is probably (due to initial claims of NRM harm / brainwashing) more mature than many areas at handling this: is this true?
But outside the classroom? Let’s look at this – my colleagues in Theology write books which take the ultimately benign nature of a Theistic God’s plan for us as a given. They stand (some of them) in pulpits, write devotional articles and write books defending belief (The Twilight of Atheism, one of the most scrappy pieces of apologetics ever written, for example). Apologetics seems almost an acceptable academic undertaking. Yet it is primarily a form of value-derived, conclusion-led, biased, partial and partisan activities one can engage in. It often has fixed conclusions which are not up for debate- only for defence. Either apologetics is, without question, not scholarship of any shade whatsoever, or we need to admit that one can construct arguments where the advantages and disadvantages of the impacts of positions is open to question. Compared to apologetics, this seems a very moderate undertaking indeed.
I think part of the suspicion I encountered was related to a general, I think, curiosity. Why would someone with not only no religious commitment but an active hostility to non-religious spirituality (actually it was incredulity, not hostility, but let’s not quibble) work in religious studies? Well, I often wonder the same thing. But: I know why: because I’m interested in how we, as a species, have sought to come to terms with various existential realities. Religion is, amongst other things, in large part, that story.
Another aspect that I merely suspect, is that what is more acceptable for books by RS scholars are either that they are descriptive (often critical descriptive, I’m not disrespecting them), or they are positive. About what religion (in general or a specific tradition) can offer people, what problems it can solve, how it can contribute to social or cultural life, rather than claiming explicitly negative outcomes.
Back in the classroom.
Of course, the approach to the teaching and engaging with the study of religion sometime known as ‘phenomenological’ (a term I’d avoid myself, reserving it for its much more useful deployment within philosophy), encourages us to leave value-judgements aside and park our commitments. There are two, related, reasons why I think this is objectionable nonsense.
1: Our commitments in respect of faith are related to our study. That I could disentangle what I believe from examining what I do and don’t believe, seems perverse. Features of traditions incline towards or away from them and towards them. I learn more of these when I study. Sure, I observe critical accountability when I teach (nice phrase, I stole it from a Biblical scholar) – but I would be less of a teacher if I didn’t engage with the traditions as I find them.
<e.g. In my class – I may say ‘I am troubled by the tendency of this tradition to xx, do you think I’m being fair to it?’,or ‘isn’t this theory of social justice compelling and preferable to theory z? Or maybe not- tell me why I’m wrong’. Clearly there are issues of authority and expertise.. I’d do this less early in the degree, when they still have some respect for me and less subject- knowledge, confidence, etc, and more as they become more autonomous and opinionated.. >
2: It’s impossible and dishonest to pretend this phenomenological approach is possible (and see reason 1- it’s not even desirable anyway). We do have opinions here, let’s not pretend we don’t. We can tell students that we won’t yet be revealing them – but to style ourselves as scholar-robots is to forget the lesson Nietzsche teaches in Beyond Good and Evil’s opening chapter:
What makes one regard philosophers half mistrustfully and half mockingly is not that one again and again detects how innocent they are – how often and how easily they fall into error and go astray, in short their childishness and child likeness – but that they display altogether insufficient honesty, while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched on. They pose as having discovered and attained their real opinions through the self evolution of a cold, pure, divinely unperturbed dialectic… while what happens at bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an ‘inspiration’, generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event – they are one and all advocates who do not want to be regarded as such, and for the most part no better than cunning pleaders for their prejudices, which they baptise ‘truths’
We need to actually be more phenomenological in the philosophical sense, not the Religious Studies sense: we encounter religions as actual beings, with a temporal trajectory towards the grave, with a place on it, with commitments and beliefs. Yes, let’s be fair, allow for learning and for a multiplicity of voices, but let’s not treat readers of our work like babies, and pretend that one of the voices in this multitude of things said is not our own.